It has been exactly a year since we held our last Author Evening, a monthly series of quiet meditative conversations organised by our team at The Bookshop, inviting authors of great perceptive intellect (the likes of which included Arundhati Roy, Tony Joseph, Manoranjan Byapari, Molly Crabapple, Shubhangi Swarup, Shashi Tharoor, Pradip Krishen, Prerna Singh Bindra, Akshaya Mukul, Archana Pidathala and so many more) to hold court here.
In October 2019, we hosted Snigdha Poonam for a conversation with Manvi Sinha about her book Dreamers, an evening spent discovering the varied aspirations of young Indians across small town India hoping to find a place in this country of fraught identities. We never thought it would be the last of our book events for a long time to come.
When we look back on it now, it seems quite coincidental to have had that as the last of our gatherings at The Bookshop. From November onwards, the country swung into seemingly pandemonic, albeit deeply introspective motion. Much like most people, eager and willing to bear witness to their times, we too found ourselves listening to what our community had to say about the world they imagine for themselves, from all parts of the country. It was as though our last reading pre-pandemic was preparing us for our work as a cultural institution in times of crisis.
In 1971, KD Singh established The Bookshop in Delhi, which to this day remains as he imagined it: a haven for readers in his city, a love letter to all those who seek a slow and deliberate life of the mind. Resonating with soft music, our quietly lit bookshop is situated in a still corner of the Jor Bagh Market across the road from the idyllic Lodhi Gardens. We have tried to be a resting place for all who seek respite from the dailyness of life and the tidal waves of culture that puncture it, for the last five decades.
In March this year, however, the threat of Covid-19 began looming heavily across borders and the lockdown was announced in India. We knew our role from what was perceived to be a secret escape room for book lovers had to evolve maturely to an active champion of our community’s spirit, which was going to be tested in various ways in the months to follow.
And so, when the lockdown was announced, we braced ourselves for what would be an incomprehensible time, yet shifted focus primarily on planning ahead: we went through publishing calendars (which, as we see now, were going to be thrown completely off course) and kept in touch with the concerned representatives, worked on catalogues, chased publishing houses like Fitzcarraldo Editions and Daunt Books all through the summer, and placed orders for stocks well in advance. We convinced publishing houses to do Indian print runs of books by authors like Brit Bennett and Carmen Maria Machado.
The idea was simple: we did not want to fall back solely on the old tried and tested favourites of the shop, or what the publishers choose to bring in arbitrarily. We wanted to bring books that had never been seen before on Indian shores. We wanted to be prepared on a solid foundation to return to work with as many great books for our patrons as possible.
In the meantime, our team kept in touch with both old and new members of the Bookshop family through our Instagram, which has, since we joined the platform, been our virtual meeting ground with patrons from across the country.
When restrictions eased, we returned to work jubilantly on May 5. A lot had to be figured out, and we seem to have struck a cohesive rhythm only now, seven months on.
We are a team of four people who run The Bookshop: Nini KD Singh, Partner; Sonal Narain, Managing Partner; Mahika Chaturvedi, Associate; and Sohan Singh, our in-house help. Upon opening, Sohan Singh was stuck in his hometown, only to return in August. Mrs Singh, for the first time in her career spanning fifty years, has not been able to come in to work even now, due to her vulnerable age. So, for the first few months, we were just two people trying to negotiate how best to acclimatise to the circumstances.
The first thing we did before we even decided on shop timings and putting a potential delivery system in place was to work on our monthly curation. A display shelf is dedicated behind the shop counter to a theme chosen just as much by our discernment, as it is by public curiosity at the moment. We hadn’t done it for two months, and the homecoming was announced by a selection of hopeful, heartwarming comfort reads across genres that flagged off our return to work.
Perhaps this set the tone for the one thing we knew we had to do more actively than ever before through this pandemic: be there for our community before we ask them to show up for us.
Our shop timings wavered immensely in the first few months. Border restrictions made it difficult for stocks to arrive at the shop, since warehouses of all publishing houses are based in the NCR area. Since The Bookshop’s curatorial expertise is in International Literature, our foresight to have ordered stocks of our back-list in advance made it much easier for us to replenish our shelves again. It also helped us create a reserve of stocks since we anticipated shipments from the UK and the USA to be highly erratic until further easing of restrictions was announced.
It was only around June that some semblance of order was in place. India Post resumed its nationwide services, and our preferred courier service began delivering across the Delhi NCR area as well. As soon as we resumed countrywide shipping, longtime champion and friend of The Bookshop, Arundhati Roy, signed copies of all her books for us. It was a delight for us to now be able to send books wherever people were.
That first book signing was a learning curve. We often received orders from places we had not even heard of. The poetry of having sent My Seditious Heart to the four corners of the country in one day wasn’t lost on us.
Our idea of readership in India evolved immensely over the next few months. Each time a book parcel was sent out, we began entering locations on an interactive Padlet map. By the month of July, we had managed to send over 200 parcels from villages in Jammu and Kerala to slowly making our way through the seven states of the North East. When we negotiated shipping costs with our courier service, Tripura became the final pin on the map. We had managed to send books to every Indian state.
It was unexpected, this outpouring of support for a small business like ours. Enlightening, too, for we discovered how incredibly eager people are to read, and how starved our country is of good community bookstores. It was decided then that, in the months to come, we would try to shift online the experience of browsing in-store to the best of our ability. We remained in conversation through our social media with innumerable people. The goal was not only to ensure equity in access to books in places that weren’t metro cities, but also to set an example for those shopping independent for the first time.
This is where our work on Instagram takes over. There really are no strategic plans in place for our social media. Before the pandemic, The Bookshop’s official Instagram page was used as a notice board for new arrivals, our events, and a monthly Q&A we did to be able to recommend more books to people. Now, well, imagine a viral sub-reddit with wonderfully civil and incredibly active participants. That’s what we moderate.
The unprecedented amount of admiration and attention we receive online is rather alien to us. We are two people equally averse to the internet, and our presence online is deeply sympathetic towards people like us. When we realised that our in-store environment is going to witness a dramatic shift, in compliance with social distancing rules and an absolute lack of time to carry unhurried conversations in-store (we were taking parcels home to pack through the night at one point), we knew our presence online would have to be more than just a run-of-the-mill advertising gimmick. It had to be respectful of the astuteness of the reader, patient towards their curiosities, and curated thoughtfully, with care.
For those of our patrons not on social media, we launched a monthly newsletter to keep them abreast of the comings and goings at the Bookshop, so that in some way they too were connected to something that pre-lockdown, was a part of their routine.
It is safe to say that we’ve spoken to thousands of people in the last few months. It has been exhilarating. We’ve tried our best to ensure no interaction is ever solely transactional, and everyone who writes to us is offered personalised attention from our team. Conversations often end up lasting for days before orders are processed. We make sure everyone who writes to us must know they are not in conversation with anonymous customer support. That there are people behind the screen, eager to help you with the best books we can, and participate in your seeking diversion, education, and solace in this time.
Since the business was founded, we have been big believers of the importance of dialogue. Our curation of books, too, is an archive of conversations we’ve had about books and ideas with customers over the years. Now that in-store shopping has been limited, we’ve been gaining insight into the interests, mental health struggles, and survival instincts of our audience through correspondence over email and messages on Instagram.
This resulted in topical curations we worked on, which revolved around contemporary queer literature, Dalit literature, post-colonial literature, books to initiate people into reading, books that spoke about mental health, and many more. We even received excellent recommendations from patrons to add on to our selection. Bi-monthly Q&As were organised, where people would share their favourite albums, their favourite movies, the shows that they’ve been watching in isolation, and we’d recommend them a book to complement.
Not only did we want to share the diversity of our curation, but also to let people know that there can be a meeting ground for all our complimentary and conflicting, varying and converging interests and struggles. And that we as a bookshop promise to try and create that space for as long as we are in business.
Our experience of these interactions has only strengthened our resolve against keeping a website or an online shopping platform. After all, we do hope to go back to being primarily a brick and mortar store, with people browsing our physical shelves.
We’ve received a humbling amount of support, which has been incredibly encouraging in the face of our own occasional pandemic fatigue. It is heartwarming to receive messages from patrons who write to us often asking us to take care of ourselves, take weekends to unwind. When we shared the persevering behind-the-scenes hard work put in by our drivers Arun and Parvesh, and our store help for the last 25 years, Sohan Singh, there was a flood of messages we received in great cheer. There is no reason why anyone should be checking in with us, but it is deeply touching that they do.
We have an often recollected conversation with a customer about housewives “sitting around a fire” in their communal kitchens during Stalin’s Reign of Terror. She mentioned to us how that is exactly the way she imagines survival in times of social upheaval, more so during this pandemic. To sit beside loved ones, biding our time and nourishing the mind when there’s very little else to do.
The Bookshop has managed to survive these months simply because we were welcomed by our community to sit around this proverbial fire with them.
The last seven months have been profound ones for us. We have managed to build a community of people across the country whom we proudly call friends of The Bookshop. The education we’ve received about what people read, the sheer length and breadth of the curiosity that is harboured by different regions of both Delhi and the states beyond, has pushed us to work harder, do better.
To express gratitude for their support in this time, we’ve constantly tried to find innovative means of bringing something unique for our patrons.
In July, when the Netflix series of A Suitable Boy was announced, we requested Vikram Seth’s publisher, Aleph Book Company, to convince the elusive writer to sign copies of the book for us. Upon the release of Azadi, her collection of essays, Arundhati Roy signed copies for us in September. Authors like Sudhanva Deshpande and Ira Mukhoty have been kind enough to visit and sign their books for us as well, all during the lockdown. Since then, we have been working on a series of curated reading lists with authors like Mahesh Rao, Richa Kaul Padte, and Karuna Ezara Parekh, who have generously shared their favourite reads with us so we can source a whole new bunch of books for our readers.
The fact is, people in India read. And they read voraciously. Our entire work ethic relies on the love for books that runs through the people of this country. Our survival depends on it. And if there’s anything we’ve learned in our experience as booksellers this year, it is that the community of readers reciprocates loyalty and sincerity.
Our biggest challenge going forward, then, is the systemic lack of support shown by publishers, and the prejudiced trade laws of the country. These issues beset the entire bookselling community.
Almost every Indian publishing house’s official website has links to Amazon and Flipkart attached for customers to purchase their books. We are yet to find a single publisher that mentions contact details of independent bookshops that stock their titles on their website. One can scarcely hold a customer accountable for buying books online when they have no means of finding out about us or other bookshops like ours. This is in spite of the fact that an independent bookseller is more committed to hand-selling books that they read and recommend, something that an algorithm is incapable of.
Trade laws in India are just as prohibitive. There is no contemporary legislation in the country, say, like France, where Amazon is barred from shipping books free of cost on top of its mandatory five percent discount on books, a measure looking to protect the nation’s independent bookstores. In Germany fixed-price laws ensure equal opportunity for independent booksellers in competition with Amazon.
The issue of import rights, also arbitrarily thrust upon brick and mortar stores but not applicable to online sellers, makes it nearly impossible for us to get books into India that have not been published in the UK. It seems to be one area where we are still colonised under the commonwealth trade laws, which make absolutely no sense at all. Small independent presses like Persephone, Carcanet, or Dalkey Archive Press, too have no way of being sold here unless they are represented by the Big Five.
There is only so much respite one can seek from #saynotoamazon online campaigns, (which again, are solely dependent on the reading community’s goodwill and principles) when there is no policy framework in our country to protect independent businesses against the unhinged expansion of e-retailers with gargantuan infrastructural facilities. Bookshops shutting down the world over through the course of this pandemic is a painful outcome of these inadequacies.
The death knell has been sounded on independent bookshops time and time again. The fact that this community has not only survived but also grown over the last few years speaks volumes about the commitment of bookshops to hold their ground as places of great cultural importance, against all manner of challenges.
Our small team at The Bookshop is here too, happy in the company of our cats, with a smile ready behind our masks to greet dear friends that walk through our doors. Trying to send the right book to its reader, wherever they are.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.